Almost three years have passed since the social outbreak that occurred in Nicaragua. The calendar marks in red on April 18, 2018, when protests against the abuses of the Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, president and vice president, respectively, broke out throughout the country, first as a result of a reform of the Social Security, and later by the repressive response of the police against the pensioners who took to the streets to cry out against it. It was at that moment that the young people also took to the streets to defend their elders. The pressure cooker of social discontent that had been accumulating for a long time was blown up, and the Nicaraguan government did not hesitate to crush it first by force of violence, and later with the approval of laws that criminalize any act of rejection against it. Laws that seek to reduce any type of opposition to Ortega, who will seek to perpetuate himself in power in the next November elections.

Almost three years later, the balance of the social outbreak is this: 328 dead, 2,000 injured, more than 100 political prisoners, 150 students expelled from universities, more than 400 health workers dismissed, and more than 100,000 people who have had to leave the country ( most to Costa Rica), including 90 journalists. Despite these figures, there are few references on the international agenda to what is happening in Nicaragua, although it is true that both the European Union and the United States have approved sanctions against the military, members of the Government, and the police by the acts of repression. But this has not alleviated the repression, which has diminished in intensity, but which in reality has intensified thanks to the “improvement of the repressive apparatus through new tools”, as Amnesty International (AI) denounces in a new report made public this Monday.

“We have previously published two other reports – ‘Shoot to kill’ and ‘Sowing terror’ – which focused on those moments of the crisis. In this, what we do is delve into the current situation: how the tactics and strategies have been perfected; and we also show how the Human Rights crisis continues “, explains to ABC the lawyer specialized in Human Rights and AI researcher, Ingrid Valencia, responsible for this report entitled:” Silence at any cost. State tactics to deepen the repression in Nicaragua.

Arbitrary arrests, false crimes, The report details three new tools, some of which have been “perpetuated over time since they were implemented in the previous or initial moments of the crisis. And others that are newer ”, explains Valencia. Among those that have been perpetuated are arbitrary detentions (according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 1,614 people were arbitrarily detained in 2018), which were implemented since the beginning of the crisis, “but have not stopped. They continue. And more than 100 people are detained for exercising their rights, which is why the call for the release of the detainees is still in force.

This would be one of the strategies used by the Ortega regime since not even the pandemic has stopped it from continuing. In fact, according to the report, throughout 2020 more than 6,000 prisoners were released for fear that the virus would spread in overcrowded prisons where the protocols against Covid-19 (such as the use of tests) were not applied. However, this measure did not affect those detained for political reasons, since only four of the 80 prisoners for that reason were released. “This shows a differentiated treatment between people arrested for exercising their rights or activists and the rest of the prison population. For activists, health tests are practically non-existent, and in a pandemic context they are even more vulnerable, ”says the lawyer. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary protection measures in favor of 41 political prisoners who were in this situation.

Another variant incorporated into the system of repression is the charges faced by opponents and activists. “Arbitrary arrests continue to take place without complying with the basic guarantees, but also, in the last stages of these arrests, the charges against which they are accused have changed: they are charges related to crimes related to drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, Previously, opponents and protesters were detained and charged with crimes such as terrorism (in September 2018, the Government passed a law against demonstrations that implied this accusation). It has thus gone from indicting political profile charges to charges for common crimes, with the aim, according to Valencia, of “damaging the reputation of activists.

The report includes several cases related to this strategy, such as that of the young Jhon Christopher Cerna Zuniga, a 24-year-old student who participated in the 2018 protests and who was accused in February 2020 of drug trafficking in a trial with no possibilities of defense according to his lawyers who continue to appeal his 12-year prison sentence. Maria Esperanza Sanchez Garcia, a political activist, suffered a similar fate. Arrested in January 2020, she was sentenced to ten years in prison. According to her testimony, collected by AI in the report, “the interrogations had nothing to do with the crimes for which they were accusing her, they only talked to her about political things, about who she worked with politically, with which opponents she worked, that’s what she focused on. the interrogation, and threats against the family, “a person close to Maria Esperanza told the NGO. “This series of drug-related crimes is used as a front,” says Valencia.

Another point that AI worries about arbitrary detentions is “prison conditions”. “The reports of the families of the detainees indicate that there is a limitation for the entry of products to the prison, such as cleaning supplies, something very worrying in a context such as the pandemic.” Added to this is the denunciation of violence by other prisoners, security guards, or mistreatment and torture when they are taken to maximum security cells. “Cells that are designed for highly dangerous prisoners, but which in the context of the crisis also serve as a punishment area for activists.

These laws are the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents, which directly affects NGOs and has already forced the closure of several, among them the foundation of former President Violeta Chamorro; the Cybercrime Law, which under the pretext of preventing the spread of “false news” represses the freedom of expression of those who disagree with or criticize the Ortega government. A constitutional reform that will allow life imprisonment has also been approved, at first reading, with a text whose “vagueness” suggests that it could be used against opponents of the regime. The most recently approved norm is the Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination for Peace, which limits the exercise of political rights protected by international human rights norms. All this is one more piece to the obstacle of the exercise of human rights. And with this, repression that has been carried out against NGOs and the media is put on paper.

It also portrays “clearly” the absence of the independence of powers in Nicaragua. In the legislative apparatus, the ruling party is the one that has the majority, with which the approval of laws has been a very expeditious process, despite the fact that international rights organizations, such as the IACHR or the High Commissioner have shown their concern when these laws were up for discussion. Now there is a set of laws to silence those who criticize the government’s policies. The last strategy that the AI report incorporates is called “civil death” and refers to the “extremely difficult conditions” in which released people live, who continue to suffer harassment, intimidation, threats, damage to their assets and source of income.

Many of them assured us that they feel just like prisoners, but now in a bigger prison. That they do not feel part of society because they cannot have a normal daily life, “says Valencia, for whom these tactics seek to” prevent activism. And punish those who are linked to him. They try to lead a normal life but continue to be intimidated by these repressive state practices. Added to this is the fear of being arrested again after being released from prison. A ghost that flies over their lives in a threatening way. “Until December 2020, there were 31 people who had been released and later detained again. There you can see the fragility of the release of these repressive tactics, reinforced in recent months, also seem to be aimed at dissuading opponents from campaigning against the government or even going to the polls next November. “It is not a coincidence that this package of laws occurs in a context close to the elections, because they are laws that limit the exercise of civil and political rights.”

The report also warns that the worst is yet to come. “That is the permanent fear,” Valencia acknowledges. Already in 2018 and 2019, we thought we had seen the worst, but the Government is clinging to exceed the worst forecasts. After making several recommendations – ending the harassment for political reasons, ending arbitrary arrests and releasing prisoners, dismantling paramilitary groups, granting justice, truth and reparation to the families of the victims – the report concludes with an appeal to the international community: “Keep the Nicaraguan human rights crisis firmly on its agenda,” as well as that the Ortega government “comply with the IACHR’s recommendations,” and allow the international NGO access to the country. From AI we want to put on the table that the human rights crisis in Nicaragua continues and that it continues to require international attention. In February and March the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council are held, and what we are also requesting, calling on the Member States, is to renew the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner to continue monitoring the situation in Nicaragua. And we hope that the international community as a whole will continue to speak out and observe closely and call on the Nicaraguan State to stop the repression, ”claims Valencia. In a pre-electoral environment, this human rights lawyer and AI researcher for Central America, considers it necessary that “international voices look at what is happening” in the country.